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Kei Nishikori outlasts Ivo Karlovic in five-set thriller

KYODO, AFP-JIJI, AP

Kei Nishikori weathered a barrage of aces from towering Croat Ivo Karlovic on Thursday to advance to the third round of the Australian Open.

In a match that lasted nearly four hours in the Melbourne heat, Nishikori rallied in the decider after giving up a two-set lead to clinch the 6-3, 7-6 (8-6), 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (10-7) victory. He scraped the win in the decider via a 10-point tiebreaker, introduced at this year’s tournament.

“I think this match will help (boost) my confidence. It was a great match,” Nishikori said. “I think we both played great tennis, and of course he served really well today. I’ll try to carry this confidence into the next match.”

Despite the massive deficit on serve — Karlovic rocketed 59 aces to Nishikori’s nine — the Shimane native appeared to have rounded into better form than he displayed in his narrow first-round victory over Polish qualifier Kamil Majchrzak, who retired with injuries midway through the fifth set on Tuesday.

But in the face of Karlovic’s advantage on serve, the world No. 9 was able to work his way into the match.

The 73rd-ranked Croatian slammed eight aces over his first four service games at Margaret Court Arena, but the 29-year-old Nishikori wrapped up the opening set in under 30 minutes, breaking his opponent’s serve to take a 5-3 lead before closing the stanza with decisive service game topped with a forehand winner on set point.

Karlovic’s big serve continued to give Nishikori fits in the second set, with Karlovic sending down 16 aces, but he committed twice as many unforced errors as Nishikori won in a tiebreaker.

The pair traded games again in the third set, but Karlovic, 10 years Nishikori’s senior, broke the eighth seed’s serve to go up 6-5, and served out the set.

In the fourth, Nishikori had a chance to pull ahead in the eighth game, but failed to capitalize on two break point chances. Karlovic broke to love with the score at 5-5 and won the set with four straight aces.

Nishikori star had to dig himself out of a 0-40 hole at 4-4 in the fifth set, and the match went to yet another tiebreaker from which Nishikori prevailed by winning the final four points.

Fourth seed Naomi Osaka swept past Tamara Zidansek 6-2, 6-4 to reach the third round as she targets a second Grand Slam title. The U.S. Open champion defeated the unseeded Slovenian to set up an all-Asian clash with Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan in the next round.

“I thought I served pretty well, but I got broken twice and she was a really great opponent,” Osaka said. “This was my first time playing her, so I’m just really happy to win to be honest.”

After Zidansek broke Osaka’s serve in the first set and leveled 2-2 on three straight unforced errors, the world No. 4 upped her game and broke her opponent twice while claiming four straight games to go out in front.

The 21-year-old Osaka found herself trailing 4-2 in the next set, but turned the set around by breaking Zidansek twice.

Later in the day, Serena Williams stormed past Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard and into the third round as her quest for a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam title gathered pace.

The American won 6-2, 6-2 in 70 minutes, setting up unseeded Ukrainian teenager Dayana Yastremska as the next hurdle in her bid for another major to equal the mark set by Australian great Margaret Court.

Top-seeded woman Simona Halep got all she could handle from 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin in the second round before taking the last four games to emerge with a 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 victory that took 2½ hours.

“Well, I have no idea how I won this tonight,” said Halep, the reigning French Open champion. “It’s so tough to explain what happened on court.”

A year ago at Melbourne Park, Halep was a point from being eliminated in two matches but came back each time en route to reaching the final. In the first round this year, she was down a set and a break before turning things around. And this time, against a hard-hitting Kenin, Halep trailed 4-2 in the third set and managed to not cede another game.

And that was despite getting what she described as “a little bit injured” in the second set, something that seemed clear from the way she wasn’t always able to run with her usual verve.

“Hopefully,” said Halep, whose No. 1 ranking is up for grabs during the Australian Open, “next round I play better.”

That third-round matchup will be quite intriguing, because it’ll be against seven-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 Venus Williams. And the winner of that could face Williams’ younger sister, Serena, in the fourth round.

Venus won a three-setter that finished a little before Halep’s did — and in much more emphatic fashion. Pushed to that deciding set by getting broken to end the second, Venus ran away with the win down the stretch, defeating Alize Cornet 6-3, 4-6, 6-0.